Is Trouble Ahead for LaTourette?

Wealthy Newcomer Has Already Siphoned Off Some Union Support

Posted March 16, 2004 at 6:34pm

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) could be in for the fight of his political life this year.

His opponent, 26-year-old political novice Capri Cafaro, spent more than $400,000 of her own money to blow away the competition in a five-person Democratic primary this month that included a self-made millionaire and a popular state Representative.

“If her primary campaign is any indication of her general election campaign … she’s going to give him a hard time,” said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party.

Cafaro zeroed in on issues central to Northeastern Ohio voters such as Social Security, Medicare and jobs, Trevas said.

Her campaign was well-organized, she was well-prepared and she has proven she has the money to compete, he said.

Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), who is chairman of the Member Review Committee for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said overall the party is confident that LaTourette is well-positioned for re-election to a sixth term.

By the same token, they aren’t taking a well-heeled challenger for granted.

Cafaro’s personal wealth — she’s the heir to a shopping mall fortune — and her willingness to spend it on the race are factors that Republicans are keenly monitoring.

It’s “not a race we can ignore,” Ney said. “He’s on the top of our food chain.”

Substantively, Republicans were quick to say that LaTourette has served his district well and that the only thing Cafaro has going for her is money.

“She failed to [demonstrate] why she deserves to serve in Congress,” said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for the NRCC.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer agrees.

“Capri Cafaro is short on anything approaching political experience, but extremely long on dollars,” the paper opined after she won the Democratic nomination in the 14th district.

“She’s held no real job outside of her family’s” businesses, Paulitz added about the paucity of her experience.

A columnist with the Youngstown Vindicator — which is Cafaro’s hometown paper — called her résumé “anemic.”

Currently, she is a self-employed public relations consultant who lives just outside of the 14th district in the Youngstown suburb of Hubbard.

Still, potentially troublesome for LaTourette and the GOP is that none of the Buckeye State’s 17 House seats is currently considered in play by either party, even though Ohio is a top battleground in the presidential race.

Trevas believes this could work in Cafaro’s favor.

The total get-out-the-vote effort by Democrats across Ohio, especially in the economically depressed manufacturing centers for their presidential nominee, could help candidates like Cafaro, he said.

The 14th district includes some affluent areas, such as the Cleveland suburbs, and it also includes heavily industrial areas, such as parts of Trumbull County.

It is also home to First Energy, source of last summer’s major blackouts in the Northeast and Midwest.

These factors, coupled with LaTourette’s personal troubles — he and wife Susan recently filed divorce papers after Susan LaTourette publicly accused her husband of carrying on an affair — made Ohio Democrats bullish about their chances of knocking off LaTourette.

LaTourette is not expected to be easy to take down, however.

“LaTourette is tough to beat,” Paulitz said.

Indeed, the 14th was redrawn after the 2000 Census to make it safer for him and he won re-election in 2002 with 72 percent of the vote.

By contrast, President Bush would have received 52 percent in the reconfigured 14th (LaTourette previously represented the old 19th district and has not been seriously challenged since 1996).

For his part, LaTourette said he was focused on doing his job. Like any other incumbent facing re-election, he is making sure to “tend to your knitting.”

He said he is confident that he will have the backing of labor.

The AFL-CIO has endorsed him in the past and will again if the Cleveland chapter has anything to say about it.

“I feel good about sticking with Steve LaTourette,” said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO.

LaTourette has bucked his party for labor in the past and that should be rewarded, Ryan said.

Ultimately, the state AFL-CIO will parcel out endorsements, probably in the summer, but Ryan will recommend the group stay with LaTourette, he said.

But Cafaro already has the backing of several area unions, including the Trumbull County AFL-CIO, so LaTourette’s continued labor backing is not for certain.

“There will be a good discussion this year,” Ryan said about endorsements.

Ryan conceded that LaTourette has a tough battle ahead in November.

“This time he has the hardest election he’s had since the first time,” Ryan noted.

Ney said if the race gets too tight, national Republicans will send aid.

“There will be an amazing amount of people who will step up to the plate to help,” Ney said.

Another factor in the race is Cafaro’s family’s past.

Her father, J.J. Cafaro, was sentenced to probation in the bribery scandal that landed former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) in the federal pen.

He pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Traficant in exchange for Traficant’s help in a now-defunct high-tech business venture of Cafaro’s.

Capri Cafaro, who was not charged with any crime, was the president of that company, USAerospace.

She was given immunity and testified in the trial against Richard Detore, an engineer at the firm who was also implicated in the Traficant bribery scheme.

Cafaro told a local newspaper that those events make her “uniquely qualified” to serve in Congress.

She said that she knows what corruption can do and that she will be a faithful public servant.

“She’s her own worst enemy right now,” Paulitz said. “We’re not bringing this stuff up.”

Cafaro was attending to a family emergency and was not available for comment Tuesday.

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) noted that recent Democratic efforts to unseat incumbents with wealthy challengers, namely Jim Humphreys (D) against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Wayne Hogan (D) against Rep. John Mica (Fla.), have failed miserably.

In a rematch of a close 2000 race, Capito defeated Humphreys last cycle 60 percent to 40 percent after he spent more than $8 million of his own money.

Hogan, a trial lawyer like Humphreys, lost to Mica by the same percentage, despite spending almost $4.7 million.

Still, Reynolds said the committee would be ready to help LaTourette.

“Should Congressman LaTourette ask for NRCC assistance, we’ll be there,” Reynolds said.